Book reviews of 'Puffling' by Margaret Wild, 'Funny Business' by Leonard S. Marcus, 'Shooting Star' by Frederick McKissack Jr.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


By Margaret Wild

Illustrated by Julie Vivas

Feiwel & Friends. $16.99, ages 3-5

"When the light is soft and night never truly falls," a baby puffin hatches into a world that is simultaneously safe and scary. His mother, Big Stripy Beak, and his father, Long Black Feather, keep their offspring safe in a made-to-order burrow, feed him frequent banquets of fish and sand eels, and warn him about the dangers of the outside world: "There are scary gulls out there, watching and waiting. Stay put in the burrow." Puffling heeds their warning, but also longs for independence and, like youngsters everywhere, grows impatient with his parents' answers: "When you are strong enough and tall enough and brave enough, you'll leave the burrow all by yourself." While the blend of fact and fiction is not always seamless, Julie Vivas's illustrations of the tiny Puffling, no more than a spherical fluff of feathers and feet, more than carry the day. Whether set against beachy brown backgrounds or chalky nighttime blues, the birds -- with their brilliant orange beaks -- are the stars of the show. An introductory paragraph, which notes that puffins mate for life, lends verisimilitude to this picture of cozy domesticity in which these parents protect and nurture their young, prepare them for the wild landscape beyond, and let them go when they are ready. Human children, tiptoeing into an ever widening world, will find comfort and inspiration in this feathered family.

-- Kristi Jemtegaard


By Fredrick McKissack Jr.

Atheneum. $16.99, age 14 and up

Jomo Rodgers can "ball hawk with the best," but college recruiters and journalists keep pointing to his slight frame as a barrier to the high-stakes world of college and pro sports. Initially, the dry-witted, likable sophomore tries to make sense of the mixed messages in his life. Football rules at his prestigious high school, and yet his prickly father, a professor of African American studies, rails against a pervasive sports system that he feels takes advantage of young black men. Jomo's teammates gain and lose weight rapidly with questionable substances -- and neither parents nor coaches intervene. Yearning for some of the attention lavished on the athletically gifted Jayson, his best friend, Jomo decides to build muscle quickly by "juicing" or taking illegal steroids. His resulting dependence and angry outbursts (a possible side effect) fuel problems with his weight trainer, his girlfriend and his father. The tension builds almost unbearably as Jomo struggles to find a way through his morass of lies, addiction and uncontrollable rage. This hard-hitting novel captures the camaraderie of student athletes and the pressure on them to win, sometimes at the cost of health, conscience and academic achievement. The ending is wrenching, a powerful moment of growth and redemption.

-- Mary Quattlebaum


Conversations With Writers of Comedy

Compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus

Candlewick. $21.99, age 12 and up

Comedic inspiration comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and styles, from big, in-your-face (or eye) Three Stooges slapstick (favored here by Jon Scieszka) to the extra-dry, deadpan feel of Roald Dahl and Edward Gorey (praised by Daniel Handler) to the quietly outlandish wordplay of Norton Juster's father (which made its way into "The Phantom Tollbooth"). Beginning each of these interviews by asking, "What kind of child were you?," kid-lit expert Leonard S. Marcus conveys a sense of 13 writers (including other favorites like Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary and Sharon Creech) and their influences, their books and even their writing habits. (The funniest image may be Carl Hiaasen wearing shotgun-style earmuffs to block out the noise of his two young children.) Philosophies and backgrounds vary wildly, but these writers share a respect for kids, their varied senses of humor (Scieszka loves the second-grade parody-loving mind, for instance) and the insights children have that adults don't necessarily appreciate. Each writer also includes either a manuscript page or a letter to his or her editor, further evidence that funny stories don't leap fully formed into a finished book. Christopher Paul Curtis advises being open to change: "I may think the story's going to go in a certain way and then get a real shock when it doesn't."

-- Abby McGanney Nolan

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